The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although Lost Horizon won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in England, it became a popular success only following the acclaim for James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1933). Frank Capra’s classic 1937 film version of Lost Horizon brought Hilton’s story to worldwide attention, and Shangri-La, the fictional Himalayan mountain lamasery where human beings aged slowly and sought wisdom, became a general term for an ideal place to live. During the war-torn decades of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Hilton’s vision expressed a longing for a quieter and more peaceful existence.

Lost Horizon begins as a standard adventure story. After a preliminary introduction of the hero, Hugh “Glory” Conway, and an explanation of his presence in Asia, the narrative opens with an account of how Conway and three other European travelers escape by plane from a violent revolution in the Asian city of Baskul. That revolution symbolizes the instability of the modern world. As their escape flight proceeds, the pilot changes course and flies ever deeper into the Himalayas. Conway and his companions realize that they have been kidnapped, but they are powerless. The plane crashes and the pilot is killed, stranding the party. Before he dies, however, the pilot mentions a Tibetan lamasery called Shangri-La.

As the European travelers plan their next move, they see figures coming toward them. Their rescuers are from Shangri-La, and the...

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Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Lost Horizon is written in the form of a third-person narrative given to the ostensible author by a novelist named Rutherford and concerns Hugh Conway, a mutual acquaintance. Conway and three other Westerners had been passengers on a plane hijacked from an Indian city during a revolution. The plane was never recovered, but Rutherford found Conway a year later suffering from amnesia in a Chinese hospital. The strange story that Conway related after he regained his memory is the body of Lost Horizon.

The four Westerners—Conway, Charles Mallinson, Roberta Brinklow, and Henry Barnard—were powerless to act even when they realized that their plane was being hijacked. Their pilot died after the plane crashed on a ridge high in the Himalayas, and they were saved only because a party of hillmen found them and escorted them to a lamasery named Shangri-La.

The lamasery proved to be comfortable, civilized, but remote. Chang, the leader of the rescue party, assured them that porters who could return them to the outside world would be arriving in a month or two, and that until then they were to be guests of the lamasery. The only other person whom they encountered directly was a young Chinese woman named Lo-Tsen, who entertained them on the piano.

The Westerners reacted differently to their stay. For reasons of their own, Brinklow and Barnard decided to remain. Mallinson himself was anxious to leave, but in the meantime...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Shangri-La. Lamasery in the Karakoram mountains of Tibet, situated on the lower slopes of a peak called Karakal (“Blue Moon”), whose elevation of 28,000 feet makes it nearly the equal of Mount Everest. The lamasery consists of a group of blue-roofed pavilions, delicately poised on the mountainside above a fertile valley. The lamasery is rich in decorative Chinoiserie but it also has an excellent library. Although it is on the site of a much older Buddhist lamasery, its present construction dates from 1734, when Father Perrault—then a Capuchin friar—took up residence prior to developing his own syncretic amalgam of Eastern and Western religious ideas. It is, therefore, a hybrid erection, grafting modern Christian ideals onto a Buddhist base, looking up all the while at an unscalable peak.

Shangri-La reminds Conway, just a little, of Oxford University. Having been deeply disillusioned and spiritually wounded by World War I and its aftermath, Conway naturally looks back to his college days with deep nostalgia. Common parlance calls Oxford a “city of dreaming spires” and a collage of “ivory towers,” and Shangri-La’s architecture and elevation are presented in similar terms. Its loftiness is, however, associated with a particular kind of atmosphere: clean, refined, and exceedingly beneficial to the health. The text carefully points out that “la” is the Tibetan word for a mountain pass, emphasizing that the...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Crawford, John W. “The Utopian Dream: Alive and Well.” Cuyahoga Review, Spring/Summer, 1984, 27-33. Compares Lost Horizon and Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, citing them as two rare examples of utopias appearing in a century of dystopias.

Crawford, John W. “Utopian Eden of Lost Horizon.” Extrapolation 22 (Summer, 1981): 186-190. Places Lost Horizon in the utopian tradition of such writers as John Milton, Samuel Johnson, and H. G. Wells, and likens its appeal to that enjoyed by such popular authors as Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard.

Heck, Francis S. “The Domain as a Symbol of a Paradise Lost: Lost Horizon and Brideshead Revisited.” The Nassau Review: The Journal of Nassau Community College Devoted to Arts, Letters, and Sciences 4, no. 3 (1982): 24-29. Discusses significant parallels between Lost Horizon and Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. Heck and Crawford (above) are notable for comparing Hilton to other, more critically accepted writers.

“Utopia in Tibet.” Review of Lost Horizon, by James Hilton. The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1933, 8-9. One of the first U.S. reviews of Lost Horizon. The anonymous writer finds the characters and their problems too unrealized to make an impression, but calls the picture of the lamasery in Shangri-La memorable.

Whissen, Thomas R. Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to Popular Cult Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. The chapter on Lost Horizon points out that Shangri-La has become part of our vocabulary and treats its popularity in terms of the myths it utilizes. The best single investigation of the book’s perennial appeal.